Robert Shelton (critic)
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Robert Shelton, born Robert Shapiro (June 28, 1926, Chicago, Illinois, United States – December 11, 1995, Brighton, England) was a music and film critic. Shelton was perhaps most notable for the way in which he helped to launch the career of a then unknown 20-year-old folk singer named Bob Dylan. In 1961, Dylan was performing at Gerdes Folk City in the West Village, one of the best-known folk venues in New York, opening for a bluegrass act called the Greenbriar Boys. Shelton's positive review, in the The New York Times, brought crucial publicity to Dylan, and led to a Columbia recording contract.
Shelton was born in Chicago in 1926 under the name Robert Shapiro, the son of Joseph and Hannah Shapiro, Russian Jewish immigrants. His father, a research chemist, was born in Minsk and came to the US in 1905. Robert was raised in Chicago, served in the US Army in France during 1944-45, and attended the School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He moved to New York in the 1950s, and soon joined the staff of The New York Times. In 1955 he was one of 30 The New York Times staffers subpoenaed by the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, who were informed by Times counsel Louis M. Loeb that they would be fired if they took the Fifth Amendment. Shelton refused to answer questions from the committee about any affiliation with the Communist Party or about fellow Times staffer Matilda Landsman, and was indicted by a grand jury for contempt. Because he did not plead the Fifth he was allowed to continue working at the Times but was transferred away from the news department onto the less sensitive entertainment desk, where he became a music critic. Convicted and sentenced to six months in prison, he appealed his conviction and had it reversed on a technicality, only to be indicted, retried, convicted, and have the conviction overturned on a technicality again. After several years of appeals in which he was represented by noted civil liberties lawyer Joseph L. Rauh, Jr. the case was finally dropped in the mid-1960s.
For a decade (1958–1968), Shelton reviewed music, in particular folk music, but also pop and country music, becoming a friend of many of the artists and extending his influence beyond the pages of the Times. His other work included writing the programs at the Newport Folk Festival, and writing album notes for several artists. On Bob Dylan's first album, Shelton's notes are credited to 'Stacey Williams'. During the early 1960s, Shelton co-edited a magazine, Hootenanny, at the same time as his friend Linda Solomon edited a different magazine titled ABC-TV Hootenanny.
Shelton spent 20 years writing and rewriting his Dylan biography, No Direction Home, The Life and Music of Bob Dylan which was finally published in 1986, after years of arguments with publishers about the style and length of the work. Shelton's intention from the outset was to write a serious cultural study, not a showbiz biography; as a result, he later said his life's work had been "abridged over troubled waters". The title is taken from the lyric of Dylan's hit single, "Like a Rolling Stone". The same title, No Direction Home, was used by Martin Scorsese for his 2005 documentary film about Dylan's career from the beginning to his motorcycle crash in 1966. Other books by Shelton include Electric Muse: The Story Of Folk Into Rock and The Face of Folk Music.
In 1982 Shelton moved to Brighton, England, where he wrote mostly about films for a number of publications up to the time of his death. In 1996, Shelton's papers, and his collection of books, records and research material were donated to the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Liverpool.
- No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan, 1986, Da Capo Press reprint 2003, ISBN 0-306-81287-8.
- No Direction Home: The Life and Music of Bob Dylan: Revised and Updated Edition, 2011, Omnibus Press, ISBN 9781849389112 A new edition, with some 20,000 words of Shelton's original text restored, published in 2011 to mark Dylan's seventieth birthday.